If Freud was the father of psychology, then William James (1842-1910 CE) was clearly the father of the psychology of religion. His first foray into the psychology of religion was a lecture on “The Will to Believe” to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities, published in 1896, in which he makes the argument that the first step in the faith journey is the willingness to believe because we want to believe. Andrew Fuller summarizes James’ concept in Psychology and Religion: “We believe in truth not because of any defensible intellectual insight we might have into its discoverability, but because we want it with a passion, because we want to believe that our investigations must continually advance us toward truth” (1994, p. 3). In a sense, it is this will to believe that captures the first religious impulse of a Muslim in reciting the shahada or in taking the hand of a Sufi teacher.
In the Gifford lectures delivered in Edinburgh in 1901-2, published as his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James provides a phenomenological study of religious experience. He defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine “ (1958, p. 42). He makes the case that institutional religion is fundamentally an attempt to emulate and learn from the personal religious experiences of an individual. James focuses his research on personal religion and identifies the full range of states and stages of consciousness which derive from the religious experience. James differentiates between the states of the “blue-sky healthy-minded moralist” and the anhedonia and melancholy of the sick soul, and the four characteristics of the mystical experience such as its 1) ineffability, 2) the noetic quality with is concomitant states of knowledge, 3) the transiency, recurrence and sometimes sustained development of these states and finally, 4) the passivity of these states when “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power” (1958, pp. 319-320).
In his chapter on mysticism, he draws on a translation of an autobiography of Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE), citing how this former jurist-theologian tested the claims of the Sufis by pursuing an ascetic retreat for five years after he left Baghdad in 1095 CE:
"During this solitary state, things were revealed to me, which it is impossible either to describe or to point out. I recognized for certain that the Sufis are assuredly walking in the path of God. Both in their acts and in their inaction, whether internal or external, they are illumined by the light which proceeds from the prophetic source. The first condition for a Sufi is to purge his heart entirely of all that is not God. The next key of the contemplative life consists in the humble prayers which escape from the fervent soul, and in the meditations on God in which the heart is swallowed up entirely. But in reality, that is only the beginning of the Sufi life, the end of Sufism being total absorption in God. The intuitions and all that precede are, so to speak, only the threshold for those who enter. From the beginning, revelations take place in so flagrant a shape that the Sufis see before them, whilst wide awake, the angels and the souls of the prophets. They hear their voices and obtain their favors. Then the transport rises from the perception of forms and figures to a degree which escapes all expression, and which no man may seek to give account of without his words involving sin." (1958, p. 338).
James does not consider the social implications that flow from these kinds of unitive transpersonal experiences such as the cultivation of social conscience or the needs of the novice to create a social support system in the quest for the religious experience, as is the case with the Sufi orders and brotherhoods, where service to humanity is an essential aspect of spiritual practice. Nor does James examine the efficacy and enhanced power of spiritual practices within a group, such as congregational prayer and meditation, to foster profound religious experiences. He does assert a depth psychological dimension to the revelatory experiences of the Prophet of Islam: “If we turn to Islam, we find that Muhammad’s revelations all came from the subconscious sphere” (1958, p. 398) but he does not touch on the full significance of the social or civilizational mission of the Prophet of Islam as an aspect of his religious experiences – the revelatory experiences as well as his ascension, mi’raj, circa 620 CE – all of which had far-reaching consequences for the moral, social, cultural and political order of humanity. As we will recall, the mi’raj itself included encounters with the angel Gabriel, the mythic white steed, the prior prophets from Adam and Abraham to Jesus, and a mission to bring to the awareness of humankind the ontological reality of the life within, and the life beyond this existence.
In summing up his conclusions to a series of twenty lectures in his seminal work, James identified five characteristics of the religious life, one of which bears repeating because it includes the notion “that prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof – be that spirit of ‘God’ or ‘law’ – is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world” (1936, p. 401). This finding serves as a premise for this inquiry into the psychological implications of Islam’s daily ritual prayer, considered as one of its five pillars.
~ Excerpted from the doctoral dissertation by Jalaledin Ebrahim, Ph.D